Tuesday, October 17, 2023

House Rules?

Blimey, it's been a while since I posted, these things happen from time to time, you know how it is...

Anyway, a few weekends ago I was touring cideries as research for a book I am writing about the cider industry in Virginia, scheduled for release next year. One of the places I visited, with my long time collaborator, photographer, and all round good bloke, Mark, was Troddenvale Cider.

Troddenvale Cider is located on the historic Oakley Farm, owned and run by husband and wife duo, Will and Cornelia. The farm is set in some of the most glorious countryside that we have in Virginia, deep in Bath County, among the valleys and mountains that form the Blue Ridge. To say I reveled in the drive from Lexington to Warm Springs would have been an understatement.

Coming from a wine background, Will and Cornelia approach cider from the viewpoint of it being the highest expression of the fruit that they press, and as such they are insanely patient as their pressings ferment and age in wooden barrels for months, and even years at a time. Their orchard, just a few years old but already producing apples for the press, contains several French and Spanish cider apple varieties as well as many of the American standards.

Their tasting room, and to be honest that term is simply insufficient for the delightful space where they serve their ciders, it really reminded me far more of a country pub, is a charming space that if we didn't have an appointment in Monterey, Virginia to get to, I could have happily sat in all day drinking their stunning cider. When time allows I will be taking Mrs V over the mountains for a tip.

While it is true that the single varietal made from Dolgo Crab Apples that is in the picture above was an absolute revelation - puckeringly dry, intensely fruity, with aromas of strawberry and cranberry, and it goes absolutely stonkingly with a West Country farmhouse cheddar (shock, horror, right?), I have been thinking about the "House Cider" since that trip.

More specifically I have been thinking about something Will said about their House Cider. Given their oenological background, Will lamented that the term "house" has come to mean the most basic wine on offer, something almost cheap and cheerful, but decidedly not excellent. His aim with House Cider is to be the exact opposite, to be the very best that Troddenvale puts out, and it is a magnificent cider, easily up there with the best being made in Virginia today, no I didn't take notes, I was too busy enjoying it.

This got me thinking about the concept of "house" products when it comes to beer. We quite often use the term "house beer" in homebrewing circles to refer to something that we brew regularly, but I don't recall a brewery, at least not in my neck of the woods, hanging their entire reputation as a brewery on a single "house" beer. Is it perhaps that modern beer drinkers are constantly on the hunt for the new, or is it a case of fear of missing out by not pushing every possible style out the door in case the crowds choose to go somewhere else?

I feel as though the concept of a "house beer" is distinct from flagship beers in the sense that flagships are often based on commercial decisions. Plenty of breweries come out the door with their flagship beers and as commercial reality bites they often change. Flagships are more often than not just the best selling beers a brewery offers.

Quite often in interviews with brewers, and I have done this myself, we ask the question "what is your favourite beer that you brew?" Invariably there follows some umming and ahhing, mutterings of chosen your favourite child, before a beer is chosen. Perhaps a better question would be "what is you house beer?" as in, which of your brews is the one that is the highest expression of you as a brewer, of the business that is your brewery? Which one would you stake your entire reputation on?

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